Friday, August 21st, 2009

A New Version of the American Dream

Carol Coletta is the President of CEO’s for Cities. One of the things that really distinguishes her from the pack is her realism about urban change, and most notably the recognition that we actually have to sell people on a positive vision of urban life to induce lifestyle change. So much of the rhetoric around urban policies is about the negatives we are trying to combat: global warming, air pollution, traffic congestion, farmland loss, etc. People are told that they should move from their spacious homes in the suburbs to smaller apartments in the city in dense neighborhoods without cars all for the good of the planet or some such.

This type of dour message is unlikely to convince anyone that isn’t already sold. You can’t sell a product like urban life with “eat your spinach” type marketing. Americans won’t buy malaise, an “era of limits”, and that their lifestyle choices are “unsustainable”. Americans want a positive, hopeful, optimistic vision of the future. This is something Barack Obama and Ronald Reagan understood, and of course Jimmy Carter did not. People want “Hope”.

Carol had an article over at Good Magazine about how we tackle this problem called “Replacing the American Dream“. It is a leadup to a CEO’s for Cities program called Velocity that appears to be designed to create that positive, aspirational narrative of urban life in a way that will appeal to a new target market.

I’m not sure I’d personally say “replacing” the American dream. I’m not anti-suburb. Nor do I think people were conned into moving there. Do I think there are huge subsidies to encourage suburban migration that ought to be cut off? Yes I do and I’ve written about them here. But I have to respect that there are those who have made a fully legitimate choice to live that lifestyle.

But there are plenty of others who made that choice by default, without careful consideration. If given an alternative vision about how they could achieve their personal aspirations in an urban environment, they might be open to being convinced – particularly if there is as much Madison Ave. behind it as there was behind suburbanization for the last 60 years.

Here is an excerpt from the piece:

When GM depicted a new vision of the good life for Americans at the 1939 World’s Fair, it looked like a dream come true. Vivid pictures romanced a new highway system through rural farmland into the heart of a well-ordered city, where every family would live in a single-family home in a single-use neighborhood filled with families from a single income bracket. Such promised order, combined with the freedom of a car in every garage, offered previously unimagined possibilities. And it worked.
Signs of the new American good life are everywhere. Young adults, with their pursuit of 24/7 lifestyles, led the way back to the city. By 2000, they were 33 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods close to the center of town. The interest in cycling has exploded, with commensurate responses by municipal governments in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and, just recently, Boston, to make cycling easier and safer. Similarly, the local food movement has gained a foothold with the mainstream, with farmers markets popping up in the most unlikely places. More Americans are choosing dense condo living than ever before.
The problem is this: These remain only disconnected signals. To date, Americans are unable to see the new pattern that is developing. There is not yet a compelling narrative about this emerging good life into which Americans can project their own lives—certainly nothing with enough power to counter the stories we tell ourselves about what is “normal.”

Even though the signs may be all around them that something new and important is underway, they haven’t put the pieces together.

That’s why CEOs for Cities—a national network of urban leaders from the civic, business, academic and philanthropic sectors, of which I am the president and CEO—is launching a new movement we call Velocity in mid-September. Its purpose is to create an energizing agenda for next generation cities and nurture the initiatives needed to advance that vision—and to pull it all together in a way that defines a new aspirational lifestyle for Americans, one that eventually becomes the “new normal.”

Again, I’d say that I don’t personally think we need to have just one definition of the good life. In an every more diverse society, we need ever more diverse ways of living to meet people’s aspirations in life. But right now we’ve only got one version of “normal” and that’s the suburbs. If nothing else, to renew our cities we need to put out a credible alternative vision of “the good life” in an urban context.

Carol is one of the best out there. She really gets it on these things. So I’m very much looking forward to see what comes next. This is a very important initiative.

In the meantime, if you want to see a positive vision of the future informed by a progressivist worldview, please check out Bruce Mau’s Massive Change.

Topics: Strategic Planning, Sustainability

23 Responses to “A New Version of the American Dream”

  1. pete from baltimore says:

    MR Renn
    I defintly agree with your statement about avoiding the "eat you spinach " approach.

    As you say there are many great things about living in the city.But i do not think that we need to stress them as much as you might think.

    I do not know about the midwest.But in Baltimore there are plenty of people moving into the city.And when they have children they move right back out.

    At least on the east coast many of our cities are becoming post college dorms where proffessionals in their 20s hang out and have fun before they get married and have kids.

    I have nothing against these type of people.I am even friends with many of them. But you need to have all sorts of a ages in a neighborhood in order to call it a neighborhood.

    Many of my friends love living in the city but feel that they can not raise their children there because of the public school system in Baltimore and because of crime .I do not blame them.

    My point is that i think that we need to deal with the basic issues of crime and education in our cities.City governments see certain neighborhoods gentrify and think that everything is going great.But the benifet is only temporary if the people leave after a few years.

    i actually think that some cities actually want this.They figure that they can have people live in their cities while they are single and don't need government services.And that they will move out before they use the school system.

    This in my opinion is a very ,very shortsighted approach to urban planning

    Thank you MR Renn for writing the post and thank you for providing the link to the article.

  2. AmericanDirt says:

    Thank you so much for recognizing that people haven't been "conned" (or even cajoled) into moving to the suburbs. Such a mentality seems to be endemic to the planning profession, and I think largely explains why planners' admonitions have largely gone ignored by the general public. Regardless of what General Motors did to rail networks in the mid 19th century, the will to suburbanize was already entrenched in the American psyche. You point out how much policymakers have branded cities as large-scale problems to be solved, which certainly does not add to their appeal–but they've often applied the same rhetoric to the suburbs, and none of it has dulled Americans' love of suburban living. In fact, many of the problems you've listed are blamed almost squarely on the suburbs, yet it has failed to convince most Americans that suburbs are not preferable places to live and, as Pete from Baltimore indicated, to raise a family.

    I also agree with you that "Replacing the American Dream" is a bit austere, and it may indicate less about Ms. Coletta's vision and say far more about the staff of editors at Good Magazine, and having her tailor her vision to what the audience would like to read. From my own limited exposure to Good (Magazine, that is), the first comment posted after her article is far more indicative of the political alignment of the magazine's readership than the apparent mission of CEOs for Cities. It'll be interesting to see what sort of discussion the later installments of her articles yield.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I'm not so sure that denser urban living is not already part of the American Dream for a significant number of households.

    I recall reading in a psychology magazine years ago that American adults prefer different living environments based on where they are in their life cycles. They identified three—pre family, family and empty nesters. The first and last have helped fuel the demand for higher quality urban living arrangements. Those with families still opt for the suburban lifestyle for the reasons already mentioned. Even those with kids have a new appreciation for urban living.

    But, the classic, two-parent families with kids now constitute only about 25% of households. Another 25% or so are single parent households with kids.

    Many of those in the remaining 50% have already bought into the denser urban lifestyle value proposition. I'm not sure how many of those with children are going to be swayed. It's easier for middle class households to move from core urban areas to the suburbs once they have kids than to stay and attempt transforming failing school districts and police departments.

    In the Chicago metro area, many suburban city centers along commuter transit lines have been becoming denser and more urban for some time—Evanston, Oak Park, La Grange, Elmhurst, Naperville, Palatine, Park Ridge, Des Plaines and Arlington Heights are a few that come immediately to mind. They are doing so because there is a market for a walkable urban lifestyle without the hassles of living in Chicago proper. Plus, the suburban downtown living option is often more affordable, and residents get to stay close to their families and social networks.

    There a lot of issues that need to be tackled in order to make denser urban living more appealing to those with children. In addition to education and security, I think focusing on getting jobs located closer to the places where people live will be hugely transformative. People may stay and take on the institutional issues if they don't have to deal with the 2-3 hour daily commutes.

    In cities with desirable residential areas, this means engaging the community stakeholders and reaching consensus on land use changes that will allow commercial structures to be profitably developed. It's a monumental undertaking. People don't like change and they especially do not like the traffic that additional commercial development brings. They are also wary of the political process that has to occur in order to enable redevelopment, and often feel locked out of that process. Political disenfranchisement, or the perceptions of disenfranchisement, is another potential barrier for communities that are trying to attract new investors and residents who have options.

    Of course, when gas is $8 a gallon, denser urban living near public transit will not need a p.r. campaign to attract converts.

  4. Pete Boggs says:

    Redevelopment experience has greatly clarified the in / out issue for me.

    All people have one thing in common, childhood. Children are "middle C" for well tuned development. Environments that are hospitable to children are preferable to adults as well.

    Indianapolis' public school system (IPS) is failing its students by 70%, as the graduation rate is 30%. That's something other than education; one purpose of which is teaching people to think for themselves.

    Self centered politicians or self-servants, don't create citizen centered policy. We need public servants who respect their oaths to the people and our Constitution.

    Here in indianapolis, unelected boards & public corporations are the precise architecture of unaccountability (instability); designed to profit, self-serving, "elite" insiders & their crony pocket protectors, whose skill sets or self images, are apparently overwhelmed by the transparency & demands of the free market. Systems of accountability have been replaced with the architecture of unaccountability. Pointing the guns of state (poor policy, tax abuse) at your customers (citizens) and forcing them to pay; that's a one-way, fee market of tyranny.

    The problem for American cities, including Indianapolis, is, there aren't enough "elites" to go around; to "stock" our neighborhoods & subsidize the morbid bloat & greed of government consumption.

    I appreciate this blog's consideration of the issue & comments that other folks have posted here.

  5. Jim Russell says:

    Part of the policy narrative problem is the urban/suburban dichotomy. Once new and shiny suburban villages are home to some of the worst blight in the United States. Many people seem to want a place with low to no legacy costs. There exists fine "suburban living" closer to center city, but the migration is towards the greenfields.

    In other words, why pay more in taxes for the same quality public schools?

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think she's re-writing history a bit. Sure, the GM vision of a car-based society appealed to some, and there are lots of Americans who simply prefer suburban life.

    But the real flight to the suburbs happened in the face of the massive rise in crime in the 60s and 70s. 70s popular culture was filled with couples debating whether to move to the suburbs, and the conversation always, always started with crime. Bad schools were always the second reason, bad that too was tightly connected to crime (sure, race played into this perception, but the tendency to write this history off as racism was always misguided; crime really did skyrocket in the US).

    So there's a large group of people who really do want urban life, but feel that basic amenities like safety are only available to the very wealthy in today's US cities.

    So you don't really need to tell people to "eat their spinach", and you don't need to re-instill people's desire for urban life. Lots of people already desire that life, and lots of people already think that the dynamism and diversity of cities would prepare their children better for the new global economy.

    However, they also feel, often correctly, that a reasonably safe urban existence isn't available for the middle class.

    Marketing isn't the only problem, here.

  7. BruceMcF says:

    I don't really want to move to a big city … not even a medium sized one. However, while living in a small town floating in a sea of outer suburbia means that the post office, pastry shop, and supermarkets are all within walking distance and are only a few minutes away by bike, I do wish there was a train that could get me to Cleveland or Columbus or even Chicago on a weekend …

    … because cities can be nice places to visit, even if I wouldn't want to live there.

    So book me down for "retrofit suburbia in place with suburban village centers clustered around transport corridors"

  8. Alon Levy says:

    Anon, white flight from the cities began in the 1950s, while crime was still low. In Newark, the white population dropped by a quarter in the 1950s, and the first riot started when the city had just become majority black.

  9. Darrin Thompson says:

    Just curious, what was the vision of the good life before the single use suburban neighborhood?

  10. Jennifer says:

    40 acres and a mule!

  11. Darrin Thompson says:

    Jennifer, that's funny and plausible. Were you serious?

  12. Jennifer says:

    I realized after posting that sounds flippant, but I'm pretty sure the ideal before the single-suburb was pre-Industrial revolution acreage & home; in the Midwest, it was the Homestead Act that allowed people to move from the city or the more settled east out to claim land, which they kept simply by living on it and making it work for them. By necessity, then, people were very spread apart from each other but often along transportation hubs. So maybe the "retrofit suburbia" people can look back to that time period for a setup that worked.

  13. Darrin Thompson says:

    That makes a lot of sense. The first thing that popped into my head when you said that was the storyline from Of Mice and Men.

    Looking back has value, but I wouldn't want to look back with the idea of recapturing anything. Maybe you didn't mean that but…

    In management the prevailing philosophy today is based on ideas from Fredrick Taylor and we've been more or less (oversimplifying…) suck there for many decades. Evidence of that is the complete burnout of the financial markets and weak manufacturing capabilities. They are just managed badly, period.

    Before Taylor there were the Craft guilds and there's a lot of intrinsic appeal there. Unfortunately the craft guilds were wiped out because, despite the aesthetics, they didn't work well. Taylorism was, if we are honest, a huge step forward for pretty much everyone, but with a lot of flaws.

    The right ideas to move forward are out there, but the vision hasn't caught on yet. Probably because the right story hasn't been told. I wish I was better at that.

    Go Deming!

  14. cdc guy says:

    Darrin, I can assure you that "management by stopwatch" was not taught in the late 1970's in the same school where Taylor taught a half-century before.

    The literature of the day focused on employee involvement; my father was teaching Deming methods to factory employees in 1980. Working in manufacturing through the 1980s, I worked on quality and procurement systems that relied on employee training and involvement long before ISO9000 came into vogue.

    I think what you refer to as "neo-Taylorism" has been driven by the cost-cutting LBO-finance types who are not real students or teachers of management methods.

    It's not clear exactly how Deming or Taylor has anything to do with "The American Dream" or suburbanization, though. Could you elaborate?

  15. Darrin Thompson says:

    cdc guy:

    I only thought that neo-Taylorism is analogous to suburban living as we know it. They are both old ideas that have gotten stuck. They've survived long past their time and are doing tremendous damage to a lot of unwitting people.

    My younger brother in MBA school recently explained quality, improvement, and good management by telling me the stopwatch guy story. Like that was it. This is how you do it. So I don't think Taylor is dead. I think he's alive and very much running the show here in the USA.

    I work at a publicly traded software company. When I read about Taylorism I had a bunch of epiphanies. I was like going the fish saying, "So you're saying there's this water all around, which explains a lot…"

  16. Alon Levy says:

    Just curious, what was the vision of the good life before the single use suburban neighborhood?

    The idea of a single use suburban neighborhood dominated by owner-occupied single-family homes goes back to the middle of the 19th century. Said neighborhood had a street grid and was transit-oriented, but it was still a single-use suburb, where people would live far away from factories and from other people. The modern car-oriented suburb became a fashionable form of this ideal almost as soon as cars were invented.

    Before then, cities didn't have enough social problems for reformers to try to change the urban form. Though there were reformers who tried to abolish the city entirely and replace it with rural communes – these were the Utopian socialists disparaged in the Communist Manifesto.

  17. Anonymous says:

    People's preferences for extreme comfort appears to be very high. They like to step into their attached garage, get into their heated/cooled vehicle, drive to drive thrus, and circle until they find the closest possible parking spot. They minimize exposure to heat, cold, rain, snow, etc. Living an urban livestyle forces you to spend a good hour or more per day out-of-doors. I love that, but I can easily see that 80% of the population hates it.

    Also, people seem to despise city traffic to an irrational extent. I've heard some say they would rather live in ex-exurbia and drive thirty to forty minutes to town for every trip than live in a city or inner-ring suburb were trips are ten or twenty minutes. They'd rather drive forty minutes at 55 mph than twenty minutes with stop lights, waiting for people to turn, looking out for pedestrians, etc.

    If you want more people in the city, you've got to appeal to or change these preferences, on top of addressing the crime, legacy cost, corruption, educational failure, etc.

  18. cdc guy says:

    Alon, I don't think your portrayal is entirely accurate.

    The "streetcar suburbs" of the early 20th century were not "single-use" places. They typically had corner commercial nodes with small groceries, pharmacies, barbers, banks, theaters etc., as well as houses of worship and offices for doctors, dentists, lawyers, and accountants.

    Some of of those nodes survived the passing of the streetcar lines. One of the "most walkable" places in Indianapolis is the area within a mile radius of one of those nodes at 54th St. & College Ave. My house in that area was between a synagogue and a Catholic parish, up the street from a public school, and around the corner from a vet, a restaurant, a mechanic.

    Further, such neighborhoods have a diversity of housing types (and thus incomes) that is unthinkable in today's monoculture suburban developments of houses in very narrow price windows. The "suburbs" of 100 years ago have become the city neighborhoods of today.

  19. cdc guy says:

    …and, I hasten to add, possibly also the model for tomorrow.

    No one likes backward-looking rhapsodies disguised as "the way forward" but the fact that old "streetcar suburban" neighborhoods are the "city neighborhoods of choice" in many cities without streetcars says SOMEthing.

    Maybe even "bring back streetcars".

  20. Alon Levy says:

    CDC Guy: the streetcar suburbs of 100 years ago were a compromise between the pro-suburb reformers' views of how a city should look, which was single-use and low-rise, and city population pressure. Advances in transportation were slower than the reformers hoped, so by the time it became possible to live X miles from downtown and commute, population growth ensured it was necessary for the newly developed area to have tenements rather than single-family housing.

  21. Alon Levy says:

    Anon, the problem with what you say about comfort is that the strip mall requires people to walk outdoors plenty. First, strip malls themselves are usually not enclosed, requiring you to walk outdoors from store to store. And second, parking is often so spread out you have to walk longer from your car to the stores than you would if you shopped in an urban neighborhood.

  22. cdc guy says:

    Alon, this timely piece arrived via Slate today with an example in NYC:

    Not all streetcar suburbs filled with tenements. The ones in Midwestern cities especially were a mix of single and multi-family with integrated commercial nodes. I'm most familiar with such places in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Indianapolis, but surely similar examples exist(ed) in Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, and MSP.

  23. cdc guy says:

    My point is, I think the "garden city" advocates advanced the previous vision of suburbs thusly: close to the city and transit, walkable, but without proximity to the noise and harshness of the industrial city of the time.

    Not bad ideas today.

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